District 47

We couldn't have dreamed up a better story: three of the four candidates running in the Republican primary in District 47 of the Texas Legislature are among Travis County's most controversial figures. Each has achieved singular notoriety, but all together in one race, they make for bang-up politics. Sheriff Terry Keel, whose heroic antics in public and fear tactics in the office have earned him multiple lawsuits from those he's allegedly abused; former Congressional candidate Jo Baylor, whose charm and Teflon appeal got her through failed business partnerships, back taxes, and property swaps with barely a scratch; and former Christian Coalition president Kirk Ingels, who is finally coming out of the closet a la Pat Buchanan, ready to finally bless us with Jesus and the state, together again.

The fun will just keep coming after the primary election March 12, because one of these three is likely to win on name recognition alone, not to mention the fact they've brought in tens of thousands of dollars for adverstising.

The fourth candidate, insurance executive Randall Riley, may have the most experience at the state level since he served as a state representative in the mid-Eighties, but that's probably not going to help him -- he hasn't got the funds, and in his own words, "I'm not always a Republican."

In this race, that's the key: The redrawing of the district boundaries in 1991 by Democrats threw most of the county's Republican voters into a single area, understood to be an attempt to protect Democratic positions. The district has an odd crescent-moon shape, stretching north around the city to Pflugerville, south to Onion Creek, and including West Lake Hills and rural western Travis County, home of both Barton Creek Properties and the Circle C development. Keel called it "gerrymandering," but should he win the primary March 12, he only has cause to celebrate, considering the evident ease of victory for a GOP candidate come November.

Susan Combs, District 47's Republican representative last session, became a leader for the property-rights movement in the state, leading the charge with a landmark bill that later became law, giving private-property owners the right to sue municipalities for compensation if government regulations lower their property values by 25%. Despite her successes at the Lege for two terms, Combs announced last fall that she would not run for re-election, although her victory was virtually assured. Political expediency being what it is, Combs left her office in January to take a position as the state coordinator for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. (Combs' early departure necessitates a special election on May 4 to fill out her unexpired term through December 31. All of the candidates have committed to run for the temporary post except Keel, who will continue to serve as sheriff until the general election in November.)

Combs' conservative bills were just a sign of things to come for this area -- Travis County, the Camelot of liberalism for the state, lost its queen, and George W. is no fan of Austin's. Bills introduced by the District 47 representative will have a good chance of being heard, despite that person's freshman status.

And while the property-rights movement still has considerable momentum, it will no doubt share headlines during the 1997 legislative session with the next big battle: block grants and bulky state programs. And all four candidates are talking big about their plans for the money, for property-tax reform, and for pounding state government down to size. With the exception of Keel, all have ideas about a new tax -- whether it be a consumptive tax, a gross-receipts tax of 1% on corporations, or a higher sales tax. With the exception of Baylor, all are pro-life, and even she goes along with the rest in wanting parental consent for minors, and the elimination of public funding for abortions. They all differ on sex education programs, but would all like to reduce the role of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), an administrative body which disburses funding, writes policy for the State Board of Education, and applies for federal grants including those for sex-education programs. All have expressed a similar fear of state environmental regulations, and, naturally, all claim to be environmentalists.

The Chronicle spoke with each candidate, with the exception of Ingels, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Ingels' campaign manager, Mike Arnold, did speak at length with us, and was able to give an overview of Ingels' positions, but declined to give details on specific policy questions. Ingels also failed to show up at a recent candidates' forum at West Lake City Hall, but his longtime friend, Mickey Powell, came in his place. Naturally, Powell spoke highly of Ingels, but then gave West Lake Hills city council members his own personal answers to their policy questions. A fifth Republican, Bill Welch, dropped out of the race early. Democrat John Lindell is unopposed in the primary, and will face the Republican choice in November.

What follows is a profile on each of the Republican candidates and their positions.

Jo Baylor We've called her a "perennial" candidate, but since she's only run for U.S. Congress recently and lost, the term should rather be used more as a description of her personality. Baylor, 44, is irrepressibly ambitious, with an incredible Teflon nature.

She has been endorsed by Combs, who wrote in a press release that Baylor was well-equipped to handle negotiations at the Capitol and would carry on the torch for property rights and conservative policies for the district. Former legislator Terrell Smith also backs Baylor, but beyond that, her endorsements are few. She says she's running because the issues she campaigned on in 1994 "are coming home to the state: welfare reform, block grants, education..." She touts her ability, as a professional property-tax consultant, to assist in property-tax reform during the next session. And she has created a "Property Owner Bill of Rights," which includes a proposal to reform the way property valuations are conducted as a way to lower taxes.

At the West Lake forum, Baylor described her three local businesses -- Austin Realty Consultants, Realty Tax Consultants, and Klean Seats, a toilet seat supply company -- and then joked to the attending councilmembers that because of the last company, she "understands the bottom line." She got the laugh she deserved. Charming to a fault even to her enemies, undeterred by criticism, and with an unfailing ability to come back from a fall, Baylor has what it takes to be the consummate modern politician.

And she has a lot to come back from. For example, despite charges -- some described in lawsuits against her by former business partners -- that she was lax in meeting some of her responsibilities and overstepped her boundaries in those partnerships, she touted herself as a "very good businesswoman" during the Congressional campaign in 1994. And despite evidence that some of the Eastside properties she held during the Eighties and later sold to the city were, shall we say, under-managed, and occasionally used as crack houses -- and that she failed to pay property taxes for several years on a few of those properties -- she claimed during that campaign that, having grown up on the Eastside, she was committed to bettering the area, and could speak to its needs with authority. Through all of this, Baylor maintained that the lawsuits brought against her were "minutiae," that her property taxes had been paid (the city paid them at the sale), and that with regard to the condition of the slum properties, she was a victim of the bust just like everyone else. An additional $17,666 in back taxes she owed on the nicest development she's ever been involved with, the 1101 Navasota office strip, was paid during the campaign after the press found out about it.

Although she was treasurer in 1992 of Save Our Neighborhoods (SON), an anti-Save Our Springs organization, she claimed during a meeting with Chronicle editors in 1994 that she had never worked against SOS. She also never filed contributor and expenditure reports for SON, as required by the Texas Ethics Commission, but when asked about it, Baylor said SON was a neighborhood group, and thus not required to file those reports. Shortly after the issue came to light, Baylor dissolved the organization. During our interview for this story, Baylor changed her tune, and touted her past with SON as an anti-SOS group. "Jo Baylor is for property rights," she said of herself. "Especially considering the SOS opposition we had with SON." Currently, she says, she's more interested in the environmental racism issue for East Austin. Would she then sign up with Representative Glen Maxey (District 51), who has sponsored bills in the Legislature pertaining to that inequality? "If it's fair," she hedged. "I'm willing to sit down with anyone."

She laughed during our interview that the Chronicle is "hard" on her, but that we could always count on her to call back and talk. And to her credit, she is certainly open to interviews. Call her up; she'll tell you anything.

Terry Keel The sheriff has the longest list of endorsements, and the names on the list are not surprising -- including several law-enforcement, teacher, and victim's advocacy organizations. His goals for the district fall just about center of the road -- and he's refreshingly realistic about property tax reform. He's not going for the Republican rhetoric supporting a "consumptive tax," or a "gross receipts tax," or a higher sales tax. Forget all that, he argues -- just reduce the size of government and make it more efficient. Keel, 38, points to his experience at the sheriff's department, and certainly, he has worked to make the Del Valle correction facility as self-sufficient as possible, using inmate labor to build two new facilities, and growing vegetables on-site.

We've written about Keel just recently, outlining a few of his more embarrassing moments since he won the sheriff's election in 1992. It's been suggested that those embarrassments coming to light, in the Chronicle, in Texas Lawyer, and in the Austin American-Statesman, were what convinced the former assistant DA that it's time to change jobs again. Keel, who will continue to serve as sheriff during his campaign for state office, scoffs at this theory, saying that if he "was afraid of a political fight, he wouldn't have run for sheriff in the first place." Since he's been in office, he's had an on-going skirmish with Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire over budgetary and litigation issues. In fact, Keel continues to lead the sheriff's department in virtual isolation from the rest of county government; any appearance by him in County Commissioner's Court is excitedly covered by the press because it's a guaranteed showdown. His isolation is due in part to his Republican alignment within a Democratic structure, and in part due to his abrasive personality.

In fact, Keel is quite proud of his ability to stand for battle, remarking that since all four of the Republican candidates in the race have similar goals -- he ticks them off: tax reform, government efficiency, property rights -- the key question is what sets them apart. In Keel's opinion, the answer is, "which candidate will not back down from a tough fight? I believe my public record says it all."

Indeed it does, whether it's standing up to his nemesis, Democratic Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, or to an attorney who's dug her heels in. But at what cost? Recall the defamation case against Keel which occurred in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of the Baugh baby in 1994 by Cathy Henderson. Keel made public statements accusing Henderson's attorney, Nona Byington, of being an accomplice to the kidnapping because she would not release a map made by Henderson of the child's whereabouts to authorities. Byington was bound by attorney/client privilege to withhold the map, but Keel persisted, even searching her office without a warrant. There is evidence, moreover, that Keel knew the baby was already dead at the time he was pressuring Byington. The following year, Byington sued Keel for defamation, and in court documents, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Albright recommended to U.S. District Judge James Nowlin, who was to hear the case, that Keel's motion for summary judgment on the defamation claim be denied. In the end, the county settled, and Byington was paid $100,000 by the taxpayers. Additionally, the case cost the county $230,000 in legal fees.

In a recent phone interview on his campaign, Keel claimed that he "got that summary judgment in my favor," even though the documents show he did not; he also claims that the county paid the money to Byington to avoid extensive litigation costs.

Keel has a nasty reputation among some of his officers (just read the newsletters), and among Democrats in the county, some of whom have said (and I'm not kidding here) that he's Hitler reincarnated, or maybe even the anti-Christ. Fear and loathing aside, Keel is simply the embodiment of the tight-ass, small-town sheriff, and he's admired for it by conservatives who like his toughness, and his aggressive victim advocacy, and who don't particularly care if he goes over the line.

At the West Lake candidates' forum, the audience is stacked with middle-aged and elderly folks sporting Keel buttons -- and he's the only one to get enthusiastic applause. Before and after the forum, Keel works those unfamiliar with him like a pro -- he's not as obsequious as Baylor, not as hesitant as the unknown Riley, not a Democrat like Lindell, and finally, unlike Ingels, he's actually there in person. Baylor may have gotten more laughs, but Keel carries a gun on the job, and that's impressive.

Will the evidence, or as Baylor would say, the "minutiae" of Keel's predilection for hubris distract voters from the question of his ability to serve at the Lege? Probably not. As we've pointed out earlier, conservatives don't particularly care if Keel steps over the line -- expediency and true passion are attractive qualities. The issue most certainly is whether Keel will serve the district well -- and that remains to be seen. He seems to have all the right positions, and perhaps even the right temperament.

Kirk Ingels Ironically, despite the recent re-emergence in this country of religious, social conservatives as valid candidates for public office, and campaign literature that echoes the pride of Pat Buchanan's stand as "the only fiscal and social conservative in the presidential race," former Austin Christian Coalition president Kirk Ingels remains a sort of stealth candidate, in that he's a no-show in this campaign. Perhaps because of that, he's got his opponents running scared; two of the other candidates stress that Ingels is the front-runner. "He's got a devoted, zealous following," one says, with appropriate religious overtones.

Guess you can't fight him if you can't see him. He never granted an interview to this reporter -- although that's no surprise -- but he also failed to show up at the important forum with West Lake Hills city councilmembers. And after the initial interview with Ingels' campaign manager Arnold, even the campaign office stopped returning my phone calls. During the initial interview, Arnold said that Ingels is spending most of his time on the phone bringing in the money -- as if he needed any more. He's far ahead of the rest on that score, having raised over $100,000 already. Just wait until the television-ad blitz begins.

The candidate's campaign literature touts his experience as a business owner -- he's an independent insurance agent for State Farm Insurance -- and his efforts in the community to stem the flow of public monies. Arnold cites Ingels' work on Proposition 22, which repealed the extension of health insurance to domestic partners of city employees, and his effort to fight the spending of $10 million in city funds on a minor league baseball stadium as his two major local accomplishments.

Ingels may take credit for Prop. 22 now, but in 1994, when a conservative group called Concerned Texans got the referendum on the ballot, then-Coalition President Ingels denied involvement, even after Concerned Texans co-founder Michael Brandes acknowledged that campaign workers were stopping by Ingels' office to pick up Prop. 22 yard signs and other materials.

"Kirk is pro-family, and pro-business," says Arnold. No kidding. "Dedicated family man" is listed on his campaign literature with equal importance as his other qualifications for running. Arnold says Ingels is "opposed to `Robin Hood' funding," and is "in favor of parental school choice," meaning vouchers, but deferred to Ingels the question of whether it should be put to public vote. He's also pro-life, "without any hedges," says Arnold, "but he wouldn't be an activist on that. He's more into parental rights."

Arnold may downplay the point, but Ingels' socially conservative beliefs will come into play with the Legislature poised to delve more deeply into the role of the TEA. Ingels and others like him at the Lege will be able to influence the issue of school-based clinics, and whether sex education programs will be comprehensive and include HIV prevention programs. Ingels and other conservatives could call for more decentralism and local control, which would position the state to have even more of a "hands-off" approach to comprehensive sex education programs.

Randall Riley Randall Riley, 41, is really more of a hybrid than a pedigree as candidates go, someone you might dismiss as both too conservative and too liberal, depending on which of his theories you happen to be hearing. He probably never was a household word even to his own constituents when he served then-District 52 (Williamson and Burnet Counties) for two terms from 1985-88. Back then, his biggest accomplishment was initiating the donor program on the back of your driver's license. "Someone else finished it off," he explains, and adds that he really wasn't in a position as a freshman legislator to pass a big bill.

In part, this also explains his reason for running. "Susan was set to become a chairman [of a legislative committee], then she quit. When I saw that, I thought that was crazy -- the area's going to have a newcomer again. There are too many environmental and political policy questions [coming up]." With his established tenure in the Lege, he says he "can become a chairman the first time around... I feel certain I can get a position that's good for the district." Riley is the biggest proponent in the race for the gross receipts tax of 1% on corporations, an idea that Governor Bush is said to have already rejected because it may be bad for business. But, he argues, the tax on corporations "would eliminate the franchise tax for corporations, and all residential and commercial property taxes." How would corporations feel about shouldering the burden for the entire state for that revenue? "I don't think it would be that popular," Riley admits.

Try to mesh that rather progressive idea with Riley's theory that "water should be viewed similarly to oil -- it's a mineral." Oil is under the ground and belongs to the individual property owner, but so is water, he says, "and yet we say it belongs to the state. We should pay for it... People would be to more apt to take care of it if they're compensated."

State government is a broken system, Riley says, and he blames the attorneys in the Legislature. "The Legislature is made up of attorneys; they don't really want the system to work because they make no money off it." He wants compromise between the two political parties, and doesn't subscribe to Keel's theory that the best fighter is the best candidate. "We need compromise, not a fight. The art of compromise, of drawing together, that's what you have to do." Riley, it seems, has something for everyone.

All the talk of property tax reform and less government in this campaign may be pleasing to the ear for the district's voters, but the reality is that as the federal government hands over education and social program monies to the states, local governments may be forced to enlarge their administrative responsibilities, thus creating bigger local government. As the candidates could discover, cutting down on social programs and education administration, while it makes for good campaign sound-bites, just may not be feasible in coming years.

More importantly on a local level, the growing suburbs surrounding Austin, especially those in District 47, will gain in power and must take a place at the table concerning regulation and growth issues. That's what makes this district so important in Austin politics: we only got a taste of our future with Susan Combs and property rights -- what's waiting in the wings is the question of regional management, planning, and governance, and how it will be shaped. n

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